A good question arose in the comments of my previous post, and I thought an adequate reply to it needed some room to spread out. It is a great question, and it illustrates why this discussion is not equivalent to an irrelevant attempt to get a do-over of some ancient battle or other.
This whole issue is important, and it is important because it has to do with whether evangelical Christians are going to be honest with the Word of God, which is our only weapon and our only hope. Whenever we play cute little mind games with the Scriptures, we are not going to be able to do anything authoritative with it in the next moment. The Bible is the sword of the Spirit, but that is no reason for us to try to fight with it still in the scabbard. I hope my meaning will become clearer in a few moments.
So here is the question from David Bayly:
“A question related to this occurred to me in reading about your debate over homosexual marriage. If slavery is often used as a wedge attack against Christianity by atheists and there is a need to be true to Scripture on the issue, wouldn’t polygamy fall into a similar category? I realize these are prudential cases, but I wonder if it might not be wise to take the same tack in both cases?”
The answer is yes, it does fall into the same general category, and I do want to take the same tack. But if I might fill in the question somewhat, where do I get off using the polygamy-is-coming argument on someone like Andrew Sullivan, when the Bible deals with polygamy in much the same way that it dealt with slavery? Why do I use polygamy as the unthinkable, scary option when debating homosexuals, and not do the same kind of thing with the slavery texts?
And the response is that I am treating them the same way. This question presents us with a great way of understanding what is going on in the culture around us. There is a distinction between understanding what the Bible says to those who are born into a society already characterized by slavery and polygamy, and what it says to societies that are free of them.
A society characterized by polygamy can only be brought out of that condition slowly. The leaven works through the loaf gradually. Once free of that condition, nothing but a great apostasy can take a culture back to that unfortunate condition. In a similar way, a society characterized by slavery can only be brought out of that condition by that same leaven. Once out of it, nothing but a great apostasy can take that culture back into a condition where slavery is common.
What my adversaries have wanted to do is dishonestly equate my insistence on a biblical way of getting out of a sinful situation with a perverse desire to get us all back into it.
If you are the first missionary to a village, and you lead the chief and his three wives to the Lord and baptize them all, what do you do then? The utopian perfectionist would have the two youngest wives shot, but even though it fixes the polygamy problem it still doesn’t seem right somehow. So what do you do? You exclude the chief from church leadership, tell him to provide for his three wives, teach him not to add any more to the number, and you address the cultural problem this presents by means of attrition, over the course of time. Reformation, not revolution. Reformation, not acquiesence.
If you are the first missionary to Ephesus, what do you do when some slave-owners and their slaves are both converted? Now here is the amazing thing: we don’t have to guess. The Bible teaches us what to do, over and over. Further, if we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge what the Bible teaches on this social problem, then we will be absolutely impotent when it comes to addressing any other social problem. And why? Because the problem is not pagans doing what pagans do, it is rather Christians refusing to do what God tells us to do. Our problem is Christians who are sheepish about the Bible. And Christians who are sheepish about the Bible do not fix any problems; they are the problem.
When we are confronted with a disparity between the way a society is and the way a society ought to be, and if we undertake the task of getting from the present condition to a better condition, we had better do it in just the way Scripture says to do it. It is not enough to point to some utopian future with Bible verses affixed to it, and claim that that’s what you are bringing in. Bible-quoting fanatics have made more than one hellhole on earth that way. In order to usher the kingdom in, the real one that Jesus talked about, we have to do it the way we were instructed. We have to be obedient. We have to care more about what Scripture teaches than we do about what others say about us. We have to be ready to rejoice when men (who, speaking frankly, ought to know better) say terrible things about us.
So what does it say? The gospel came into a pagan world full of slaves. The Bible also describes a future for that world in which all such slavery would be eradicated. But the Scriptures do not give us two x’s on the map, and then tell us to make our way from one place to another in “whatever manner” seems best to us. The gospel came into a world full of slaves, and within that first generation, the church was already dealing with slaves and slave-owners as communicant members of the same church. Great. Now what?
Unfortunately for those people who want the Bible to be coy about such social issues, the Bible is nothing of the kind. We are taught, in plain Greek, what to do about slaves and masters (doulos and kurios). And running any of them out of the church was not one of the options.
“Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit” (1 Tim. 6:1-2).
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men . . . And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him” (Eph. 6:5-7,9).
“Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ. But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons. Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 3:22-4:1).
If anyone would like to read a glorious and detailed treatment of the Pauline strategy for dealing with slavery, I commend N.T. Wright’s commentary on the book of Philemon in the Tyndale series. Warning: Paul’s strategy played out in slow motion, and did not require slaughtering 600,000 people to do it. But that’s not a bug; it’s a feature.
And we can’t try to get away from the Word of God by claiming that slavery in America was somehow across-the-board worse than ancient slavery. The overall claim is laughable, but human nature being what it is, I do know that in some places it was much worse, depending on the situation and on the master. Bell curves are hard to manage, and so there can be a lot of swing between one situation and another. Shoot, some ancient slaves and some American slaves had it much better than that Chinese kid currently locked up in the factory that makes reusable grocery bags for the hipsters at Whole Foods.
The ground for slavery in our setting was more capricious (being racially-based), but the legal protections for slaves in the ancient world were virtually non-existent. Let’s just grant it was bad in both settings, and that the Scriptures are relevant as we seek to understand what to do about it. The New Testament writers instruct Christians on how to deal with this great social dilemma, and they do so plainly. My central point is simply that such instructions are authoritative for any Christians who find themselves in a comparable circumstance. And if you ignore what the Bible says to Christians in such circumstances, when the teaching is big-E-on-the-eye-chart-plain, you may depend upon it . . . you will ignore the Bible elsewhere. You will ignore it on abortion, on women’s ordination, on homosexual marriage . . . why look at this! Is it 2013 already?
The ignorant and the malevolent try to twist this view of mine into a desire to get back to those halcyon days when slaves were cheap, but slander remains slander whether it proceeds from ignorance or malice. If I am a missionary dealing with a newly-converted polygamist who wants to divorce his most recent wife, I can (and would) point him to Ex.21:10 without in any way wanting to reintroduce polygamy in a culture which has been monogamous (thanks to the gospel) for centuries. There is no way to reintroduce polygamy here now without, as I said, a great cultural apostasy taking place. The same goes for slavery. So I want to fight disobedience with obedience, not with a different flavor of disobediendce, and obedience begins with reading the text accurately.
If you want to turn Ephesian slaves into employees who get a livable wage because that doesn’t hurt your feelings so much, sure, go ahead. Make them Hispanic if you want. Just quit calling it exegesis. Calling it exegesis is what hurts my feelings.
So all this is screamingly relevant to our current controversies. How? We are having to run with cultural horses in our current culture war debates — and most of our preachers, translators, prophets, theologians, pundits, scribes, and bloggers are having trouble keeping up with cultural old ladies with their walkers. In the current battles, we need to recognize that we are losing them for a reason.